Providing consumers with safe, affordable and nutritious food is at the heart and soul of the food industry in the United States, Canada, and globally. And each food safety incident is a reminder of the importance of rigorous food safety management systems on the farm, inside plants and wherever food is served or sold. Today’s complex global supply chains magnify the importance of such systems, where one faulty actor exposes the vulnerability of many.
In recent years, the work of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) has helped to increase consumer confidence in the management systems and practices within the industry by establishing a common benchmark for third-party facility audits.
While many within the industry are aware of third-party audits carried out against GFSI-recognized schemes, to GFSI board members it is about instilling a food safety culture, incident prevention and a continuous improvement in food safety management systems.
To expand its presence in the U.S. and Canada, the GFSI board last June appointed me the GFSI North American representative. I work to heighten awareness of GFSI and to encourage adoption of the GFSI-recognized food safety management schemes in the region. In addition, I join the GFSI board members in discussions with the FDA and CFIA to ascertain the role that GFSI-recognized schemes can play in supporting regulatory organizations to meet their targets in relation to managing food safety risks along the supply chain.
I am bemused by the reference to “GFSI certification,” a short-hand reference to the extensive efforts companies undertake to have their facilities certified against one or more schemes benchmarked against GFSI’s Guidance Document. GFSI itself doesn’t certify sites, it works at the scheme owner level.
International stakeholders involved in GFSI establish high-level scheme management, food safety management, HACCP and good practice criteria in its Guidance Document. GFSI-recognized schemes are based upon guidelines established by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, founded by FAO and WHO in 1963 to develop harmonized international guidelines to protect consumer health and ensure fair practices in the food trade.
Existing food safety management schemes are benchmarked against these criteria and, when successful, are "recognized" by GFSI. A growing number of buying companies that follow the "once certified, accepted everywhere" approach recognize certification against any of the GFSI recognized schemes from their suppliers. This harmonized approach helps to minimize the number and diversity of audits that any one facility must undertake.
Currently the GFSI work in North America is centered on the setup of a new U.S.-Canada Local Group to help enhance awareness and understanding of GFSI within the industry. The Local Group will be composed of key local industry players who are actively involved in GFSI and who want to expand adoption of GFSI recognized schemes. Group members also want to ensure that small and medium-sized businesses benefit in the long term from certification against GFSI recognized schemes.
To date GFSI has launched two Local Groups – in Japan and in China. These GFSI Local Groups support GFSI’s continuous efforts to share knowledge and promote a harmonized approach to managing and improving food safety across geographies at a local level.
Recently, I attended the FDA’s two-day public hearing in Washington regarding the agency’s Foreign Supplier Verification and Third-Party Auditing and Accreditation proposed rules. The frequent references to GFSI in the hearings and the proposals themselves were gratifying and a testament to the many meetings and long hours that industry experts have donated to the program. GFSI has had its growing pains, but it has come far in a very short time and serves a recognized need.
One of the exciting aspects of our organization is GFSI’s Global Markets Program. This voluntary tool supports small businesses/primary producers in continuously improving their food safety programs to achieve food safety requirements in a phased approach. Although GFSI does not engage in training activities, external organizations and businesses have developed training modules against the program that are being used in projects in Egypt, Ukraine, Chile, Dominican Republic, Kenya, Russia, Kazahkstan, Zambia and Malaysia among others. Many of these projects are ventures between buying companies, international organizations, governments and training providers, which speaks to the global collaboration at the heart of GFSI.